During the same set of years that I served with the Batavia Chamber of Commerce, I signed up for the local Rotary International club in Batavia. I already had a history of working with service clubs and organizations. My friends and I all joined Key Club, the high school version of Kiwanis. We did community projects, but the main benefit was holding the key to the lunchroom candy machines. As a distance runner, I loved having quick access to the carbs and sweets inside that machine. I’d be lying if I claimed that I paid for every single candy bar consumed that year, but I kind of viewed it as a scholarship of sorts.
Yes, that was dishonest. Like many teens, my morals were dependent on circumstance at times. Running all those miles burned a ton of calories, and at 6’1.5″ and 138 lbs, I needed every calorie I could get. It didn’t help that my daily lunch consisted of a baloney sandwich on white bread with mustard complemented by a bag of Fritos, a Hostess Apple Pie or pack of Ho Hos, and a Coke. It’s amazing I could run well on that kind of fare. But run I did, 50-60 miles a week, with races on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. That rotation was capable of chewing up and spitting out distance runners, and that level of competition was stressful in many ways. It consisted of weekday dual and triangular meets against conference rivals and invitationals held on weekends. That type of schedule produced many finely talented distance runners but also many burnouts. When I arrived at Luther College in Iowa, the reputation that Illinois made burnouts preceded me. Indeed, several of my Luther teammates from Illinois either fizzled out in college from lack of interest or got caught up in cycles of drinking or smoking pot. I made Varsity my freshman year, finished in the Top Ten in Conference three out of four years, and captained a team to Second in the NCAA Division III National Championship.
So while I never reached the truly elite ranks of distance runners, I proved to be something of a survivor. Living through the ups and downs of distance running is a great teacher in life.
That attitude of perseverance was proving vital in the work and political world of my early career. The power trips and machinations of working in the newspaper industry tested my talent for self-control and confidence. So did volunteering for the Chamber, where nothing that I did was compensated except for the social and cultural capital it offered. Those efforts were unappreciated by the newspaper. I was still a young man trying to make it day-to-day, but learning that most people really didn’t give a damn about much other than themselves.
Then I got invited to join Rotary, and it was an entirely different atmosphere. Though many of the club’s members were top executives at the local banks and savings and loans or business owners, there wasn’t much ego going on and everyone got along. Even the four bank presidents that were members of the club got joked and kidded with each other. You’d never know they were in competition for customers in town. At first, I tried to figure out my role in the club. Native anxiety still afflicted me in many social situations, leading me to wonder if I was truly accepted. At that point, I was one of the younger professionals in a group that consisted of attorneys, doctors, salesmen and even some retired Rotarians that still attended weekly meetings. One of those members had memory loss yet was picked up by various members at his house to attend meetings each week. I appreciated the respect shown to him by club members.
Finding a Purpose
Once I took on a more active role within the group, any worries about being accepted melted away. I volunteered to book the speakers each week and loved the creativity of finding interesting people to talk about their careers or organization. One week I hired a comedian from a company called Sultan’s Delight, known more for its entourage of strippers than its jokers. But the comedian showed up and rocked the house as a mocking ventriloquist using a puppet in his routine. Handing the puppet to one of the Rotary guys, he told him, “Go ahead, put it on!” Then he roared, “What are you, a proctologist?”
Of course, you had to be there because much of the hilarity in his routine relied on delivery and inflection. One of the most interesting speakers was a legally blind woman that explained the challenges of living with a disability. The group was fascinated and asked lots of questions. But when it came time to do our weekly raffle drawing, the President at the time invited her to draw the ticket and then withdrew the basket while saying, “Oh, I forgot, you can’t see.”
The room fell quiet for a moment. That particular President was not known for his social awareness. In fact, he was something of an oddball. We had a few of those and everyone accepted that no one was perfect.
That Good Old Boy Done Bad
I was encouraged to invite our Congressman Dennis Hastert to speak to the group. At the time, he was not yet Speaker of the House but an Illinois politician rising in the ranks of Republican leadership. The group was excited to have him speak, and I arranged for the visit during our breakfast meeting. Hastert showed up in the company of one of his staff members and gave the classic political “update” speech that covers the top priorities of the party. When he was finished, the floor was opened for questions. After a few responses, I posed a question about a key environmental issue in Illinois. To both my surprise and horror, Hastert literally laughed out loud at my inquiry. My face flushed in anger. Some of the members laughed nervously knowing my background as an environmental journalist, and the moment passed.
But I was President of the club when Hastert returned a year or two later to speak again. When it came time to introduce him, I was handed a protocol sheet listing his title and background. Instead, I stood straight and tall while looking right at him, and said, “Today’s speaker is Dennis J. Hastert.” And I sat down.
He kind of rose to his feet and ambled up to the podium and launched right into his stump speech. “What was that about?” one of my fellow Rotary members asked. “If you give respect, you get it in return. He laughed at me the last time he was here. I don’t owe him respect if he doesn’t choose to give it to me.” Frankly, I viewed Dennis Hastert as a prick.
Years later, Hastert was caught up in a scandal as a “serial child molester” for sexually abusing youth as a high school wrestling coach. Learning of that history, my response to him felt justified. For years I’d watched him muck about at the top levels of government proudly signing malignant aspects of the Republican agenda. I’d recognized the sour soul at the heart of his fraudulent persona. I see ex-President Donald Trump in the same sick light, a phony jerk claiming heartfelt patriotism when the disturbing truth of his psychosis lives barely out of sight.
Bumping into another kind of Good Old Boy Network
Even though I loved most of the people in Rotary, there were internal politics I did not care for. After our club failed miserably at a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, one member came up with the idea for an annual Corvette Raffle. The benefits were immediate, netting the club an annual profit of $10,000. But when I became President, I asked a simple question, “Have we ever taken outside bids on the Corvette?”
The club had consistently purchased its Corvette from Avenue Chevrolet. That dealership was owned by Don Clark and his son John. I got along well with both of those men, and actually stepped in early to run the Chamber when John had a stroke. Don was an avid Rotarian with perfect attendance after forty years by visiting other clubs for “makeup” visits when he wasn’t in town for regular meetings. He was a fun-loving and social guy, but he could also be a taciturn guy by some measures. He also had a habit of chain-smoking his way through life back when smoking wasn’t banned in public places.
So knowing that Don could be a tough character, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to mess with “business-as-usual” on the Corvette Raffle front. Still, I’d had enough life experience by then, especially having straightened out the finances of the Chamber a year or two before, that my belief in the merits of financial transparency was strong. I collaborated with the Rotary Board to put together the request for a bid, then went to visit Don Clark in the company of Bob Becker, the President of the local Savings and Loan.
Bob was one of the most genuine men I’d ever met. He was the one that invited and sponsored me to join Rotary. I’d called on him for several years during my advertising sales for the newspaper, and we built a fun relationship. His main challenge in life is that he seemed to want more from it than he was somehow getting. At one point he self-published a book of his own short stories, each with some kind of western theme. He printed a sepia-tone photo of himself dressed in cowboy gear on the cover. I gave the book a read the book but the stories were mostly descriptive with little plot. There were few high points to engage the reader. Secretly it made me fear that my own writing would turn out that mundane. My fellow Rotarians rather agreed, but we loved Bob for trying to break out of the mold.
Over time, Bob and I built a friendly, supportive bond. After all, I’d probably saved his house from burning down the night he hosted a Rotary Christmas dinner for the club. During dinner that evening, I noticed that one of the wax candles on a table had overflowed and set the wood on fire. I jumped up and ran over to put out the fire with another tablecloth.
Such are the unexpected fires of life. He was a kind man that just wanted a little excitement in life. On one trip home from northern Wisconsin, he stopped at a local mall and had a diamond pierced earring placed in his ear. So he could be a little impetuous, which is perhaps why he supported my idea to put the Corvette purchase out for bid. I trusted Bob because I knew that he meant well, and while he expressed concern that we were going to run into some resistance from Don Clark, he agreed with the idea that on principle, the club should get a competitive bid from another dealer. So we showed up at Don Clark’s ofice and explained our plans. As predicted, he erupted in anger, and pointing at me with the hand clutching a cigarette at me, he roared, “You don’t know how things work around here!”
I calmly stated, “Actually, I think I do.” Then I said, “You’ll be given the same chance to bid on the Vette as other dealerships.” We planned to bid the Vette with a dealership out in Elburn before making our decision. As it turned out, that business came in with a much lower price, so the Rotary Club made several thousand more dollars to apply to its service projects.
I didn’t blame Don. He was right that his longtime membership in the club justified a certain level of deference. But we’d done the raffle several years and it was so successful that more community organizations were making appeals for the money we raised. So the goal in bidding the car was to maximize the proceeds from the raffle. Okay, perhaps I was wrong in putting the business out to bid. Perhaps I just wasn’t a fan of the Good Old Boys Network way of doing things.
Even Rotary International was a bit “behind the times” in those days. Up until the early 90s, the entire organization was a Good Old Boys Club. Membership only began to open up to women a year or two into my own membership. To their credit, the first women in our club were an important factor in the club’s growth and success. They were successful, confident women whose presence broadened the perspectives of the group as a whole. One worked in the travel industry. Another led the administration of a local community college. Soon enough we had women lawyers and other executives in the club, which made for a better atmosphere overall.
I teamed up with two of those women and one other male Rotarian to compete in the District Bowling Championship. We clobbered the field. Our two women team members Lynn and Joan each bowled over a 170 average for three games. I did the same and our fourth bowler Tom was not far behind. We won the overall title. That really pissed off men in Rotary who could not stand the idea that women kicked their ass. “Tough luck,” Joan Roverud chuckled.
Time to Fly
Eventually, after eight years I left Rotary upon starting my own business. I didn’t want to keep up with attendance on the weekly meetings. Those rules have changed for that reason.
Yet I fondly recall the honesty and humor of the men and women of Rotary. They were a valuable influence during those formative years of my business journey. At the same time, some of the members never quite knew what to make of me. My background as an artist was particularly vexing to some. I didn’t quite fit the mold of what they perceived an artist to be, so they’d give me Paint By Number sets as White Elephant gifts every year. I had four or five of them before it was all through.
Yet that was nothing new to me. For all my attempts at fitting in with different social circles, my life from an early age has been marked by a feeling of “otherness.” Sometimes that feeling came from external sources, yet it also came from some sense within. That sense of “otherness” was particularly keen during those early days as a distance runner. Running all those miles made people think we were crazy. Runners were depicted as lonely and weird and considered the “odd birds” of society. Well, so be it. I ultimately learned to embrace the feeling of being “the other.” To this day, it seems to run as a constant rotation in my life. Because as they say, what goes around, comes around.